It was a small place: only two rooms upstairs, and only one of those windows was lit. The shutters were drawn, but he saw a shadow pass by the crack, and as he stood there in the sharp-smelling dark, he heard Isobel’s giggle, high and nervous, and then the rumble of Wilberforce’s voice.
Not too late, then. He drew a deep breath and flexed his hands, stiff with cold and long riding.
The words of an old Highland song echoed in his mind as he rummaged about the ramshackle shed behind the tavern. He had no notion of the music, but it was a ballad, and he recalled the story, which had to do with an abducted bride.
… in one bed they were laid, were laid, in one bed they were laid.
In the song, the young woman hadn’t wanted to be abducted, though, and fiercely resisted the attempts of her would-be bridegroom to consummate the marriage.
“Before I lose my maidenheid, I’ll fight wi’ you ’til dawn, ’til dawn, I’ll fight wi’ you ’til dawn,” he murmured absently, feeling round the walls. A good-size beer barrel would be enough; tall as he was, he could reach the sill, he thought.
The valiant maid succeeded—owing as much, Jamie thought, to the unmanly feebleness of her would-be husband as to her own efforts—and, come dawn, emerged triumphant from the boudoir, insisting that her abductors restore her to her home, … virgin as I came, I came—virgin as I came!
Well, he hadn’t heard any screeching yet, so there was a chance Isobel would come home in the same condition. He didn’t find a suitable barrel but did come across something better—a thatcher’s ladder, laid on its side. He carried this out, walking as softly as he could, and laid it carefully against the wall.
There were noises from inside the tavern—the usual clatter and voices, and a smell of roasted meat that made his mouth water, despite his preoccupation. He swallowed saliva and set foot on the ladder.
The sound was cut off abruptly, as by a hand placed over her mouth, and three seconds later Jamie smashed in the shutter with a ferocious kick and dived headfirst into the room.
Lawyer Wilberforce yelped in shock. So did Isobel. The man had her pressed to the bed, and was on top of her in only his shirt, his hairy arse protruding obscenely between her white round thighs, glimmering in the candlelight.
Jamie reached the bed in two steps, grabbed Wilberforce by the shoulders, pulled him off Isobel, punched him in the face, and sent him staggering into the wall. He picked up the candlestick and bent to take one hasty glance between Isobel’s legs, but saw neither blood nor any other sign of recent intrusion, so put down the candlestick, yanked her night rail down over her legs, lifted her off the bed, and headed for the window, then on second thought went back for a blanket.
Someone was calling up the stairs, wanting to know was anything wrong?
Jamie bared his teeth at Wilberforce and ripped the side of his hand across his own throat, ordering silence. The lawyer was on the floor, back pressed against the door, but at this made an earnest attempt to scrabble backward through it.
“I can’t, I can’t,” Isobel was saying, breathless. He didn’t know if she meant she couldn’t climb down the ladder in the dark or was only hysterical, but he hadn’t time to ask her. He hoisted her over his shoulder, threw the blanket on top of her, stood on the sill, and stepped backward out into the night.
The ladder, while stout enough for its purpose, hadn’t been intended for elopements. The rung snapped under his foot and he slid most of the way to the ground, clinging to the rails in terror as the ladder slewed sideways. He hit the ground—still standing—and lost both his grip and Isobel. The ladder fell sideways with a clattering thud, Isobel with a thump and a stifled shriek.
He picked up the lass and ran for the mule, Isobel whimpering and digging her fingernails into his neck. He slapped her briefly on the bum to make her stop, put her up on the mule, untied it, and made for the road as the door of the inn opened and a truculent male voice said—from the safety of the lighted interior—“I see you, you bugger! I see you!”
Isobel said not a word on the way back to Helwater.
JOHN GREY WAS LYING in his bed, contentedly reading Mrs. Hagwood’s Love in Excess; or, The Fatal Enquiry, when he heard a great rustling and bumping in the corridor outside. Tom had gone to bed long since in the servants’ attic, so Grey flung back the covers, reaching for his banyan. He had barely got this on when there was a brief, imperative thump at his door that shivered its boards, as though someone had kicked it.
He wrenched the door open and Jamie Fraser walked in, dripping wet carrying someone wrapped in a blanket. Breathing heavily, he crossed the room and deposited his burden on Grey’s rumpled bed with a grunt. The burden let out a small squeak and clutched the blanket round itself.
“Isobel?” Grey glanced wildly at Fraser. “What’s happened? Is she hurt?”
“You need to soothe her and put her back where she belongs,” Fraser said, in very decent German. This startled Grey nearly as much as the intrusion, though an instant’s thought supplied the explanation—Isobel spoke French but not German.
“Jawohl,” he replied, giving Fraser a sideways look. He hadn’t known Fraser spoke German, and a brief thought of Stephan von Namtzen flashed through his mind. Christ, what might they have said to each other in Fraser’s hearing? That didn’t matter now, though.
“What’s happened, my dear?”
Isobel was hunched on the edge of the bed, snuffling and hiccuping. Her face was bloated and red, her blond hair loose, damp and tangled about her shoulders. Grey sat down gingerly beside her and rubbed her back gently.
“I’b ad idiot,” Isobel said thickly, and buried her face in her hands.
“She tried to elope with the lawyer—Wilberforce,” Jamie said in English. “Her maid came and got me and I went after them.” Jamie returned to German and acquainted Grey with the situation in a few blunt sentences, including his intelligence regarding Wilberforce’s wife and the precise situation in which he had found the lawyer and Isobel.
“The schwanzlutscher hadn’t penetrated her, but it was close enough to give her a shock,” he said, looking down dispassionately on Isobel, who was slumping with exhaustion, her head leaning on Grey’s shoulder as he put his arm about her.
“Bastard,” Grey said. It was the same word in English and German, and Isobel shuddered convulsively. “You’re safe, sweetheart,” he murmured to her. “Don’t worry. Everything will be all right.” The wet blanket had slipped off her shoulders and puddled round her, and he saw with a pang that she was wearing a nightdress of sheer lawn, with broderie Anglaise inserts and pale pink ribbon at the neck. She’d gone prepared for her wedding night—only she hadn’t been prepared at all, poor little creature.
“What did you do to the lawyer?” he asked Jamie in German. “You didn’t kill him, did you?” It was pouring outside; he hoped he wouldn’t have to go and hide Wilberforce’s body.
“Nein.” Fraser didn’t elaborate, but squatted in front of Isobel.
“No one knows,” he said to her softly, eyes intent on her face. “No one needs to know. Ever.”
She didn’t want to look at him; Grey could feel her resistance. But after a moment she lifted her head and nodded, her mouth compressed to stop it trembling.
“I—thank you,” she blurted. Tears ran down her cheeks, but she wasn’t sobbing or shivering anymore, and her body had begun to relax.
“It’s all right, lass,” Fraser said to her, still softly. He rose then and went to the door, hesitating there. Grey patted Isobel’s hand and, leaving her, came across to see Fraser out.
“If you can get her back to her room without being seen, Betty will take care of her,” Jamie said to Grey in a low voice. And then in German, “When she’s calm, tell her to forget it. She won’t, but I don’t want her to feel that she is in my debt. It would be awkward for us both.”
“She is, nonetheless. And she is an honorable woman. She’ll want to repay you in some way. Let me think how best to handle it.”
“I am obliged.” Fraser spoke abstractedly, though, and his eyes were still on Isobel. “There is … if she …” His gaze switched suddenly to Grey’s face.
Jamie’s own face was rough with red stubble and lined with tiredness, his eyes dark and bloodshot. Grey could see that the knuckles of his left hand were swollen and the skin was broken; he’d likely punched Wilberforce in the mouth.
“There is a thing I want,” Fraser said, very low-voiced, still in German. “But it cannot be blackmail or look like it in any way. If there were some means to suggest it very tactfully …”
“I see your opinion of my diplomacy has improved. What is it that you want?”
A brief smile touched Fraser’s face, though it vanished almost at once.
“The wee lad,” he said. “They make him wear a corset. I would like to see him free of it.”
Grey was extremely surprised, but merely nodded.
“All right. I’ll see about it.”
“Not tonight,” Fraser said hastily. Isobel had collapsed with a little sigh, her head on Grey’s pillow, feet trailing on the floor.
“No,” he agreed. “Not tonight.”
He closed the door quietly behind Fraser and went to deal with the girl in his bed.
Point of Departure
TOM HAD THE LUGGAGE LOADED ONTO THE MULE, AND THE horses were waiting. Lord John embraced Lady Dunsany and—very gently—Isobel and shook hands with Lord Dunsany in farewell. The old man’s hands were cold, and the bones as fragile in his grasp as dried twigs. He felt a pang, wondering if he would see Dunsany alive the next time he came—and a deeper pang of concern, realizing what the old man’s death might mean to him, beyond the loss of a dear old friend.
Well … he’d cross that bridge when he came to it, and God send he wasn’t coming to it just yet.
Outside, the weather was lowering, the first drops of rain already making wet spots on the flags. The horses’ ears twitched and turned to and fro; they didn’t mind rain and were fresh and eager to be off.
Jamie was holding Grey’s gelding. He inclined his head respectfully and stood back to allow Grey to mount by himself. As Grey put his hand on the pommel, he heard a low Scots voice murmur in his ear:
“Queen’s rook to king eight. Check.”
Grey laughed out loud, a burst of exhilaration pushing aside his disquiet.
“Ha,” he said, though without raising his voice. “Queen’s bishop to knight four. Check. And mate, Mr … MacKenzie.”
JAMIE COULDN’T ENLIST Keren’s help this time. Instead, when Peggy the nursemaid came to fetch Willie back to the nursery for his tea, he asked her to take a note from him to Betty. Peggy couldn’t read, and while she might tell someone he was meeting Betty, she couldn’t know where. He particularly didn’t wish to be overheard.
Betty was waiting for him behind the hay shed, fastidiously eyeing the immense manure pile with a curled lip. She switched the expression to him, raising one brow in inquiry.
“I’ve a wee thing for ye, Mrs. Betty,” he said without preliminary.
“About time,” she said, the curl melting into a coquettish smile. “Though not so wee as all that, I hope. And I also hope you have a better place than this for it, too,” she added, with a glance at the manure. It was too late in the season for flies, and Jamie personally found the smell rather pleasant, but he could see she didn’t share this opinion.
“The place will do well enough,” he said. “Give me your hand, lass.”
She did, looking expectant. The look changed to one of astonishment when he put the little purse into her palm.
“What’s this?” she asked, but the chink of coins as she weighed the purse was answer enough.
“That’s your dowry, lass,” he said, smiling.
She looked at him suspiciously, plainly not knowing whether this was a joke or something else.
“A lass like you should be marrit,” he said. “But it’s not me ye should be marrying.”
“Who says so?” she asked, fixing him with a fishy eye.
“I do,” he replied equably. “Like the wicked Mr. Wilberforce, lass—I’ve got a wife.”
“You do? Where?”
Ah, where indeed?
“She couldna come with me, when I was captured after Culloden. But she’s alive still.”
Lord, that she may be safe …
“But there’s a man that wants ye bad, lass, and well ye know it. George Roberts is a fine man, and with that wee bawbee”—he nodded at the purse in her hand—“the two of ye could set up in a bit wee cottage, maybe.”
She didn’t say anything but pursed her lips, and he could see her envisioning the prospect.
“Ye should have your own hearth, lass—and a cradle by it, wi’ your own bairn in it.”
She swallowed and, for the first time since he’d known her, looked tremulous and uncertain.
“I—but—why?” She made a tentative gesture toward him with the purse, not quite offering it back to him. “Surely you need this?”
He shook his head and took a definite step back, waving her off.
“Believe me, lass. There’s nothing I’d rather do with it. Take it wi’ my blessing—and if ye like, ye can call your firstborn Jamie.” He smiled at her, feeling the warmth in his chest rise into the back of his eyes.